Hinduism Television and Hinduism
by
Haripriya Narasimhan, Indira Arumugam
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0288

Introduction

In March 2020, India came to a standstill under one of the strictest lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Marooned in their homes (those who had homes), people invariably turned to television to while away the time and relieve anxieties about the virus. The state broadcaster Doordarshan began telecasting the serialized versions of two most well-known epics in India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Though several versions have since appeared, the Ramanand Sagar version of the Ramayana first telecast in 1987 and the B. R. Chopra version of the Mahabharata telecast in 1988 are considered most successful. Relatively unknown actors who played Rama (Arun Govil), Sita (Deepika Chikalia-Topiwala), and Krishna (Nitish Bharadwaj) became overnight sensations. In the late 1980s, much of the Hindi-speaking parts of the country came under the spell of these television shows. One of the few works theorizing religion on television and/or television as religion is Elijah Siegler’s chapter entitled “Television” in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture notes that in its role as a purveyor of entertainment and foremost cultural raconteur in today’s social landscape, television has accrued a sort of religious authority. Tracing the imbrications of American Protestantism and television programming, he proposes that television has three main functions—(1) a priestly one of establishing the hegemony and homogeneity of the dominant religious culture, (2) a prophetic one critiquing the initially established religious and cultural hegemony, and (3) a rabbinical role of presenting the diversity of religious encounters and values without advocating a particular position. Given the still ongoing reverberations of a deregulated media and liberalized broadcasting, television in India has mainly had a priestly function. Ritualizing certain aspects of communal experience, television programs reinforce the values of the dominant Hindu culture in public often without explicitly referring to religion. The repetitive nature of television programs itself supports this ritual function. With time and space set apart for a specific activity that brought families and communities together in an act of collective attunement to the transcendent, watching the Ramayana and Mahabharata at 9 AM every Sunday had all the trappings of a ritual. But this was in the pre-globalized and pre-Internet era in India when there was not much in the way of entertainment except for cinema. How are we to make sense of the success of the contemporary resonance thirty years later amid widespread availability of other forms of entertainment? After the economic reforms of 1991, India’s television landscape has become plural and the viewing public has become more fragmented. In this essay, we consider the articulations between these seismic economic, political, and social transformations and the intricate ecologies of television and ultimately their impact on the making, unmaking, and mobilizing of religious publics as well as culturalist, political and especially religious productions.

Televised Epics: Imagining the Nation

The literature on Hinduism and television is dominated by analyses of the two epics first broadcast in India in the late 1980s, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat This is detailed in Lutgendorf 1990, an analysis of the spectacular impact of the state broadcaster Doordarshan’s telecast of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan in 1987. Serialized version of the epics, shown for the first time in India on television, heralded not only a change in television programming but also the role of the state in regulating the medium, and the political landscape of the country in the following decade. Driven by electronically mediated reconfigurations of temporality and territoriality, Hindu symbols, ideologies, and practices have become mundane acts of consumption anchored in weekly routines in the intimate private sphere. The two shows, Ramayan and Mahabharat, telecast back-to-back, are credited with, albeit indirectly, opening up space in the political spectrum for the Hindu right. Rajagopal 2001 argues that this telecast “violated a decades-old taboo on religious partisanship, and Hindu nationalists [namely the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political outfit, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)] made the most of the opportunity.” Confirming the idea of a Hindu awakening, this televised religious series was perhaps an untended catalyst for a Hindutva shift in Indian politics. Scholars argue that this series and its popular success may have inspired the chariot journey (rath yatra) led by BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, agitating for the building of a temple to Rama at the site where the Babri mosque was, to religiously motivated riots targeting Muslims and culminating in the destruction of the Babri mosque and allowing the BJP to reap rich electoral dividends to form the government and become the preeminent political power. As religion has become a ubiquitous presence on television so has it become a prominent part of Indian politics according to Agrawal 1999. Detailing some of the aftereffects of Indian television’s Hinduization, Mitra 1993 details how India’s culturally diverse and primarily secular face was undermined as Hindu and Hindi-speaking north India became framed as the unified and singular national representation. Another effect, Sengupta 2016 notes, is that televised Hinduism has brought graphic violence into the intimacy of the home and normalized it.

  • Agrawal, B. C. “Viewpoints and Comments: Cultural Invasion from The Sky: Hinduisation of Indian Television?” Sociological Bulletin 48.1–2 (1999): 269–273.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038022919990119

    Agarwal delved into the impact of broadcasting TV series based on Hindu mythologies like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The change from analogue to digital technology in broadcast media and the move from watching TV as a “free” medium to one where the customer pays to see programs, Agarwal argues, had significant implications, an example of which is the presence of religion on TV in three ways—“religious discourse/prayer, mythological epics and fortune telling.”

  • Lutgendorf, Philip. “Ramayan the Video.” The Drama Review 34.2 (1990).

    DOI: 10.2307/1146030

    Lutgendorf analyzes the dramatic impact of the national broadcaster Doordarshan’s telecast of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan in 1987. While derided by critics for its awkward costumes, pacing, and special effects, this televised Ramayan evoked spontaneous outpourings of popular piety and became an important focus of devotion. Sifting through how and why this televised version became so popular, Lutgendorf examines the intersections between folk traditions and technological advances, regional and national imagining, and religion and politics.

  • Mitra, A. “Television and the Nation: Doordarshan’s India.” Media Asia 20.1 (1993): 39–44.

    DOI: 10.1080/01296612.1993.11726404

    Doordarshan, the state-run TV channel in India, is a site for defining and framing an imaginary of the nation. Mitra charts how, while watching Doordarshan’s serialized epic, Mahabharat (1988–1990), itself became a “religious practice,” the series also attempted to represent India as the “Bharat of the Mahabharata.” It posed a national image where Hindu and Hindi-speaking north India was hegemonic while non-Hindu and non-Hindi practices were framed as marginal and even deviant.

  • Rajagopal, Arvind. Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489051

    Rajagopal places the broadcast of Ramanand Sagar version of the epic, Ramayan, in its historical context, at a time when India was slowly opening up and creating aspirations while simultaneously concerned about how these newly unleashed aspirations might affect culture and traditions. This series’ success assured the public that, while there may be shifts, conservative/traditional elements were largely being preserved. Rajagopal chronicles how this televised Ramayan gave rise to a new kind of politics.

  • Sengupta, Roshini. “Iconography of Violence in Televised Hinduism: The Politics of Images in The Mahabharata.” Continuum 31.1 (2016): 150–161.

    DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2016.123179

    Drawing on the history of “televised Hinduism” that fills up “homogenous empty time” for viewers, Sengupta emphasizes the bringing of violence graphically into the audience’s homes through the consumption of the televised epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. The separation of “good and evil” that drive these epics is concretized through several visual (body comportment and clothing colors) and narrative strategies (rationalizing the protagonists’ but condemning the antagonists’ violence).

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